The Least Secretive Life

The Least Secretive Life

I felt grateful that my therapist had given me a complete apology. Yet mending our broken bond was still complicated. The real problem with forgiving: what comes next?

The following is an excerpt from The Forgiveness Tour: How To Find the Perfect Apology by Susan Shapiro.

After our volatile six-month estrangement, Dr. Winters emailed to see if he could apologize in person. I refused to meet at his office. An addiction specialist, he saw evening patients on his visits to New York. So I suggested a drink at a café between my home and his work, on Tuesday at 10 p.m.

When the seminar I ran at my apartment ended at nine, I was edgy. I took a shower, as if to cleanse away a hundred and eighty days of sadness. I feared I’d be pathetically early, waiting an hour; he was always late. He was the father figure who’d helped me with my sobriety, marriage and work. It was the longest I hadn’t seen him in fifteen years.

“With all that Pluto, just thank God you were betrayed by your shrink and not your husband,” my Jungian astrologer said. I didn’t feel thankful, reliving the shock I’d felt six months before, catching my student Haley leaving his office. I repainted my face and put on a black sweater, black boots, and black pants, funeral attire. The upside to my severed link with Winters was that I hadn’t regained the thirteen pounds I’d lost. But what I used to call “the breakup diet” seemed less cute at this age, accompanied by a breakdown.

Walking to the restaurant, I rehearsed telling him how his lies about treating Haley – after he’d promised not to – had infiltrated my nightmares. I kept checking my watch, paranoia lurking. Vatsal, the psychiatrist I’d tried, felt there was something I couldn’t see that would unlock the mystery of what happened. I hated mysteries. But Vatsal warned me not to expect a reconciliatory “Rolls-Royce of endings.” What would be the most defective lemon on the lot? Arriving to find Dr. Winters sitting at a table with Haley, running her fingers through her fiery red hair.

Turning the corner on West 9th Street, I caught his silhouette. He was waiting outside, typing on his BlackBerry. For the first time ever, he was early. By himself. His brown bomber jacket reminded me of a favorite picture of my real father as a teenager on the Lower East Side, in his dusty leather jacket, looking like an old-time gangster. Winters seemed thinner, almost gaunt, his hair shorter. He saw me and clicked off his device, nodding.

We headed wordlessly inside the Italian bistro I frequented. Martino, the charming owner, double kissed me. I didn’t introduce them. Who would I say Winters was? He wasn’t my friend. “Former therapist” would sting, like saying “ex-husband” fresh from signing divorce papers. I asked for a table in the back room, which was empty. I was guarded, Ingrid Bergman in an old spy movie. This public meeting with him felt illicit, like something terrible could happen any second. I flashed to all the mobsters who’d shot each other in restaurants.

We sat down, took off our jackets as the waiter brought menus and little glasses of water. I sipped slowly, simmering. In therapy, I’d spill everything the second I sat down. Now I stayed silent.

“I’m sorry I hurt you.” He fidgeted with his napkin. His tone was genuine, regretful.

Gripping my glass, I took another sip. “Traumatized me,” I corrected, crunching ice.

“I didn’t mean to.” He drank his water.

If there were four parts to a good apology, he’d hit a double: #1 acknowledging the offense and #3 expressing remorse. I longed for #2, the explanation. I looked up to scan his eyes. What couldn’t I see?

“I’ve lived through more emotional cycles with you than anyone in my life,” I confessed, stealing Vatsal’s theory. “I needed you, loved you, idolized you, hated you, killed you off, mourned you, and now you’re resurrecting.”

“How Catholic of us,” he said.

Especially for a Jew and a WASP, I thought, suppressing the urge to scrawl that down, the way I recorded intriguing lines he’d say during our sessions.

“So what’s going on with you?” I crossed my legs to appear casual, pretending my sanity hadn’t been at stake.

“I’m seeing my mother next month. At a nursing home in Texas. She had a stroke.”

That totally threw me. He’d once mentioned that he hadn’t seen his ninety-year-old alcoholic mom in decades. He looked vulnerable, a battered little boy. A ploy for sympathy? It was working. At least he wasn’t small-talking me.

“You must have mixed feelings about that reunion.” I sounded like him.

“That’s the understatement of the century.” He smiled.

Sinatra’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin played. Winters ordered a Diet Coke. I craved a vodka tonic, joint, and a cigarette. I chose Chamomile tea with honey.

“Can you turn the music down?” I asked the waiter.

“You’re such a New Yorker,” Winters commented.

What did that mean? In Arizona where he’d moved they tolerated loud music getting in the way? The waiter brought our drinks. I spooned honey into my mug.

He watched me, then commented, “You’re using too much.”

How rude. Then I realized we’d never been in a restaurant together. In fifteen years, we’d discussed substance abuse in his office, analyzing my smoking, eating, toking and drinking habits ad nauseum. Yet he’d never actually seen me smoke, toke, eat, or drink.

“How’s Aaron?” he asked.

Enraged at you, I didn’t say. He had to save me from you. “Good. How’s your wife?”

I’d never met Claudia, a therapist for cancer patients. She ran a charity in Arizona, where they’d relocated after their Battery Park brownstone was ruined on 9/11. She’d sounded like a fearless crusader. A year ago he’d mentioned, in passing, that she’d needed minor surgery to remove a benign tumor. When I’d asked over the summer, he said she was expected to make a full recovery.

“She’s not well,” he said now, his voice cracking.

I leaned forward. “What happened?”

“It was malignant. She needed neurosurgery. There was nerve damage.”

“What does that mean?” I was alarmed. “Is she in the hospital?”

“No, she’s recovering at home. But she’s half-deaf, can’t drive, work, fly, or walk without a cane. They don’t know if she’ll improve.”

“Oh no. I had no idea.”

This was what I couldn’t see! Hearing the sadness in his voice erased my anger, his eyes no longer menacing, just agonized.

“They sent me a $50,000 hospital bill the insurance didn’t cover,” he added.

“Why didn’t you just tell me your wife was sick?” If he’d said he was treating Haley and any patient who called him to pay medical bills, I would have understood. And recommended him to others. It was his deception that unnerved me.

“It was hard for me tell anyone for a while.” I’d never seen him look so stressed. “She’s very private. Maybe I was in denial that I couldn’t keep working.”

What I hadn’t known was that behind his healing façade, his life was falling apart. Here was #2, the explanation for his behavior. If my husband was seriously ill, I doubted I could keep working. Still, a spouse’s illness didn’t immediately exonerate everything. He should have trusted me with the truth.

“Why not email me that you had medical issues? Or personal problems?” I asked. After fifteen years, didn’t he owe me that?

“They said she was dying and there was nothing we could do. I regressed back to the nightmare of my childhood, shattering the illusion that the world was safe,” he said. “I lost my home, sanctuary, city. I was scared I’d lose my wife. I couldn’t fix her or protect my family.”

The Jewish guilt toward my Protestant shrink ricocheted. How unfair he’d had to leave his native city in the aftermath of the World Trade Center catastrophe, to have his Arizona life upended too. I irrationally worried he’d given me all of his wisdom and magical powers but didn’t keep enough for himself.

I drank my tea, resisting the urge for more honey. “The cancer didn’t spread?”

“No. The surgeon who operated said it was a miracle they were able to get the whole tumor. But she may not recover any further.”

“How’s your daughter handling it?” I recalled his only girl was thirteen.

“Kathy was diagnosed with chronic lung disease. She needs treatment too.”

His entire family was sick. How horrible. He was like Job. “I’m so sorry,” I told him.

The way he’d acted had nothing to do with me. He morphed from mean monster into a healer too overcome with grief to focus on work. I wanted to apologize for not knowing, to reach for his hand to comfort him. But physical contact was the one boundary we never broke.

Exchanging the words “I’m sorry” with him made me feel lighter. The unbearable burden of believing he’d intentionally hurt me lifted.

“Hating you screwed up my senses,” I said. “It felt like my blood was clogging my veins.”

“I’m glad you had Aaron to talk to,” he told me.

“It was hard for him to leave you that phone message telling you to stop contacting me,” I conceded, recalling the heated exchange six months earlier.

“What message? I never got it.”

Of course he had. He’d responded by emailing, “So your husband speaks for you now?” I’d been so astonished, I’d printed it out for proof. But I saw he’d really forgotten. It was a different kind of heartache, like catching the initial sign of a parent’s dementia. For the first time, I felt older, stronger, clearer than him.

“You’ve been through hell.” I mirrored his feelings, his therapist.

“I feel like I lost the whole year,” he said.

In the months without him, I’d confided much more to my husband. Yet there were secrets I’d rather share with a therapist, like the details of my insatiable addictions. And how upset I remained that he’d chosen Haley’s feelings over mine. If this was our last meeting, I didn’t want to fake it or leave anything unsaid.

“It still bothers me you’re treating my student after I told you she was stalking me,” I admitted.

“I’m not.”

“Not at all?” I hated that this still mattered so much. I could hear him saying, “Susan, everything is too important to you.”

“I haven’t seen her in five months.”

I was confused. I’d pictured them Skyping daily, in harmony and constant touch, the way he and I had been.

“It was a mistake,” Winters conceded.

This update seemed game-changing. Because I won the contest I hadn’t wanted to play?

“You’ll have no contact with Haley?”

That was #4, the reparation: He was here with me, admitting I was right, cutting her out of the picture she never belonged in.

“I will not see or speak to Haley again,” he said.

I was elated that Haley was out. But wait! I wasn’t back in. This was the conclusion Vatsal said was too dangerous to hope for. Only now I didn’t want a Rolls-Royce ending; I wanted Daniel’s pain to end and his family to heal. He looked worn down. He needed this debacle to go away as much as I did. But why?

“Are you doing this to shut me up?” I asked.

“Yes! Shut the hell up already!” he said.

We laughed. But then I feared it was true. “You really just want to quiet me down?”

“Things co-exist,” he said. “I don’t want you upset anymore. I want this bad blood finished.”

It was. It occurred to me that talking about our rift to my husband and others we knew in common—”leading the least secret life,” as he’d instructed, pushed him towards this apology. His advice saved me from him.

“Anything else?” the waiter asked. We shook our heads.

I wasn’t ready to bid Daniel goodbye forever. He was the mentor who’d seen me clearest. For years we’d ended each talk by confirming our following session. Now everything was altered. Cutting him off while angry kept us entwined; hatred was easier. Letting go of my wrath, I’d have to deal with how much I missed the good Dr. Winters and move on, without him. I felt grateful that he’d given me a complete apology. He’d offered valid acknowledgment of the offense. Explanation for why it occurred. Sincere expression of remorse. Reparation ensuring it wouldn’t happen again.

Yet mending our broken bond was still complicated. The real problem with forgiving: what comes next?

“How are you feeling now?” He wrestled the shrink reins back.

“My mind is racing. I keep coming up with different subtexts for what happened,” I said.

“Like what?”

“You scheduled Haley right before me, then ran late so I’d catch you lying. You felt guilty. So having me see her leave your office was a way to get out of the deception,” I tried. “You alienated me, expecting me to cut you off, like your mother did. Then you apologized and wanted a reunion, knowing I’d forgive you.”

“How would I know that?”

“Because you know me. And unlike your mom, I’m not a raging alcoholic. You fixed my addictions, the way you couldn’t fix hers,” I said, wishing we could go on talking, start over. Anything but end. “I read over the pages of the addiction book we worked on. It’s not bad. Maybe we should finish it.”

“We should.” His eyes lit up, like it was the best idea anyone ever had.

It was like a married couple, seconds away from divorce, deciding to give it another shot.

The waiter brought the check. I looked at my watch. Our fifty minutes was up. I let him pay this time.

In her entrancing, heartfelt new memoir The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology, Shapiro wrestles with  how to exonerate someone who can’t cough up a measly “my bad” or mumble “mea culpa.” Seeking wisdom, she explores the billion-dollar Forgiveness Industry touting the personal benefits of absolution, where the only choice on every channel is: radical forgiveness. She fears it’s all bullshit.  Available at Amazon.

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